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Thomas Jefferson and the science of practicality.

By JEFFREY H. MATSUURA [Archipelago] – Thomas Jefferson possessed an unusually comprehensive perspective on the connections linking intellectual property rights, invention/innovation, economic development, and democratic values.

Jefferson was a well-known scientist of his time.  His interests spanned a wide range of sciences and engineering.  His scientific interests and accomplishments were substantial enough to lead to his election as president of the American Philosophical Society, one of the leading scientific organizations in the United States during Jefferson’s time.  Perhaps most important, Jefferson viewed himself as a scientist.  In an 1809 letter to Pierre Samuel DuPont de Nemours, Jefferson wrote: “Nature intended for me the tranquil pursuits of science by rendering them my supreme delight.”

Jefferson was a pioneer in the development of American patent law.  As Secretary of State, he served on the first Board of Arts, the body that reviewed patent applications and granted patents.  In effect, Jefferson was one of a triumvirate that served as both America’s first patent commissioner and first patent examiner.  As a result of his technical experience and interests, Jefferson dominated the Board of Arts, and its operational approach to patent review was largely shaped by him, adopting a focus on patents based on the utility, novelty, and non-obviousness of the invention.

Jefferson was also an active consumer of ideas, inventions, and innovations developed by others.  His correspondence reveals his substantial interest in the work of other inventors, and significant interaction with them.  He was, for example, very curious about the polygraph, a device used to generate copies of written documents.  Jefferson also devoted attention to a cryptographic device, the wheel cipher.  As a farmer, he tried out/examined a variety of agricultural devices.  He had great respect for the work of inventors.  In a 1798 letter to John Taylor, Jefferson praised advances in a design developed by Thomas Martin, noting:

Mr. Martin’s improvement in the cups of his drill is a beautiful one, and it is now the most compleat machine in the world for sowing a single row.  I have sent it to the board of agriculture in London and informed them whose invention it is.

Even as Jefferson was open to and appreciative of the innovations of other inventors, he continued to pursue, and to suggest, additional refinements to enhance the quality and performance of their work.

Continued at Archipelago | More Chronicle & Notices.

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